How do you maintain your grip on reality?

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to my future self. It was barely three months after what had been my debilitating bout of depression to date, and I was a little nervous. To realize that for eight out of twelve months I could have been so wrong about so many things, so blind to so many truths, so caught up in the half-lies of my distorted reality — it was a world-shattering realization. (In my previous post, I write in greater detail about the distorted thought patterns of a depressed person.)

I say world-shattering because most of us grew up being told to believe in ourselves, that if we believed something about ourselves then that’s true. Or at least, that what we see in ourselves is supposed to be more valid than what others see in us. Never let anyone else have the final say. They are but naysayers. Trust your heart. 

I was finding that that wasn’t so great of a mantra to live by. In my depression, I believed that what I had was not a treatable illness, regardless of what anyone told me. I also believed God had either abandoned me, or He simply hated me, regardless of what anyone told me. Because it sure seemed that way to me.

I remember being 15 or 16 and watching supermodel-turned-talk-show-host Tyra Banks instruct the teenage girl on her show to “go home, take a post-it, write I am beautiful, stick it on your mirror and recite it to yourself every day until you believe it.” The live audience promptly rose to their feet for a watery-eyed standing ovation. I remember grimacing at my laptop screen, not because I disagreed that this girl looked perfectly pleasant, but because all these women were essentially telling her to completely disregard her own conviction. And they expected it to work? I won’t pretend to know how one overcomes Body Dysmorphia Disorder, but I doubt that was it. I don’t think they let the poor girl say anything, but I knew that if I were her, I would have thought supermodel Tyra Banks was just patronizing me by telling me I was beautiful when I really wasn’t. It’s not going to work. Not unless our culture stopped worshipping self-belief and self-determination above all else. Because sometimes, many times and for many reasons, we are going to be misguided and we are going to be wrong.

Who, then, can we trust to tell us truths that can be so counter-intuitive?

Back to the letter I wrote to myself. I hoped for this letter to protect me against depression’s most powerful trick: the distortion of perceived reality. This is part of what I wrote to a future self who might be caught in another raging mental storm: If that’s what’s happening now, hold on to this golden nugget of truth: Many things in life have failed you, but God will not fail you. If you’re going to succumb to the lies of depression, fine, but this is one thing you can vouch with all your mind, heart and soul is true. Otherwise, strive to know more of Him and His plan for your life, his role for you in His kingdom. Go into storms confident that you are standing on solid rock. . . . You are a daughter of God and He loves you more than You could ever know.

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This was written solely to myself, and no one else has seen it till this moment. I thought this would be foolproof. It’s in my handwriting, and it’s sincere — how could future me distrust it?

But I did. About six months later, I opened this letter again and I wanted so badly to rip it to shreds. I read my own words and chastised myself for being so delusional at the time of writing. For the second time, I became obsessed with the theory of depressive realism: depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals. While everyone around me insisted that my depression gave me a negative cognitive bias, I believed in myself so much that I thought it was them who had a cognitive bias — a positive cognitive bias. And I, being supposedly depressed, had the more accurate appraisal of myself and the world.

What arrogance, Karen.

I remember my then-boyfriend trying to tell me I was being arrogant. It made no sense to me at the time. How could I possibly be arrogant when my self-esteem is at rock bottom?

It turned out that while depressed, I lost many things — self-esteem, self-love, empathy, love for others — all but my idolatry of my own intellect. I suppose it didn’t help that I’d been immersed in an academic environment that worshipped the intellect as the harbinger of Truth.

Recently, I talked to my RCIA instructor about my struggle to retain my faith during depressive episodes. He said that we consider the human person, we often don’t look beyond the intellect, the emotions, and the body. Our free will, he says, is a very sacred gift God has given us. It operates outside of intellect, emotions, and body. He has given us our will so we can know Him, and choose whether or not to love and follow Him.

I see now that as a Christian, I must, using my free will, submit my intellect to God. While this must sound like blasphemy to any post-Enlightenment atheist, I declare this unashamed because there is no better option.

To people for whom religion is but a tool of rationalization, I say the same of secularism. It comes down to the question of which is the more reliable tool. Well, my religion is not quite a tool, but a relationship with the true and living God. He gave me my capacity to think and capacity to rationalize. When my brain is “broken” and doesn’t perceive things quite accurately, I can turn to its manufacturer to tell me what I ought to be perceiving. Thank God for the Church that has been entrusted to guard and dispense God’s truths, so we will never be left as orphans (John 14:18) flailing around trying to make sense of everything given our limitations.

I repent of my life-long arrogance and self-idolatry. I will end this post with one of the most-cited verse of the Bible: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5). I used to think this applied mostly to those who “aren’t smart enough to come to their own understanding of things”. I take that back, and I would even add that this is particularly relevant to those we consider to be highly intelligent.

What I needed was not a letter from me. What I needed was God’s Word and the teachings of His Church, and the humility to trust Him over myself.

I know not all my readers share my convictions, so I’ll open this up to you: how do you maintain your grip on reality? Or more broadly speaking, how do you know what’s true?

Related post: Being depressed did not make me an “innocent in hell”

Recommended reading: In Miracles, C.S. Lewis demonstrates how the fact that we can even reason and rationalize is a great argument for the existence of a transcendent Creator. Or go to Wikipedia for a summary of the argument from reason.

When I told my professors about my depression

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Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?

It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.

This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:

Dear Karen,

I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.

No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing  wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.

S.

And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:

Hi Karen,

An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.

R.

The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.

Note: Taking  a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!