How Do Atheists Cope with Grief? Part 2: Dealing with Depression

Bruce Gerencser asked a rather interesting question over on his blog The Way Forward.

"For those of you who are secularists (atheists, agnostics, humanists, non-religious) , how do you handle tragedy and grief? What have you found to be helpful? Not helpful?"

Part 2: Dealing with Depression

I have a lot of experience with depression. More than I'd like.

And it's not because I suffer from depression. I am lucky enough to have escaped the 'depression gene', if there is such a thing.

My mother, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

I grew up in a broken family. My parents divorced when I was five. My mom entered a deep depression which she wouldn't fully recover from. 

She's stable now, but highly medicated, and although her meds work to stop her depression they also make her emotionally unresponsive, slower to think, and she always seems to be in a confused state. 

I don't know if that's a fair trade off or not, but I'm glad she's still around. Because a few years ago, she tried to kill herself.

It was back in 2005 and I was finishing my last year of college. One day I am walking home and a car pulls up and my younger brother jumps out.

Now if you knew my brother you'd know that he hates to drive. A car accident when he was a teenager traumatized him. He drives now, sure, but he hates it. At that time he alway tried to avoid driving if possible. But here he was, jumping out of the driver's side of the car.

"Get in," he said. "We have to get mom."

"What?" I asked. "Where's mom? What's going on?"

"She's been arrested for self endangerment and is now being shipped to the ***redacted*** mental institution. Either they will take her or we can, but she has to be there by six tonight."

"Mental institution? What's going on?"

With tears in his eyes, my brother informed, "She tried to kill herself."

I'll spare you all the details. Mainly because it's not my story to tell. But it's something I've dealt with my whole life. Caring for a mother who is depressed. Or, rather, failing to do so.

The good news is that I no longer resent my mother for closing down and going in and out of 'misery comas' as one of my friends once called it. There were just days that my mother was so depressed that she wouldn't even call in sick to work. She'd just sleep.

I remember two times I called her work for her.

It always felt strange. Because parents always called their kid's school when the child got sick, but I hadn't ever heard of the child calling the work for the parent. Maybe some do. I hadn't heard of any that had.

So I was left to make mac-and-cheese for my brother and I on those dark days where are mom would disappear into her room, close all the blinds, and vanish away beneath a pile of covers.

Then there was the crying. The please for death to take her. Bouts of hysteria, wailing, and screaming. Followed by more screaming.

This is about the time I began spending more time at my friend's houses than my own. My brother, who was a homebody, retreated to the downstairs living room and lost himself in video games.

It's all we knew to do.

I feel bad now, knowing that I could have done more to help, but at the time I simply didn't know what to do. I wasn't equipped to handle having to take care of an adult.

But being a single mother of two isn't easy. The bad days are bad. The real bad days are practically unbearable. And my mother, she dealt with that the best she could on top of depression.

That makes her strong like no other, in my eyes.

But depression, it has a way of seeping into your bones, it eats away at you like a cancer, and weakens your spirit day by day. What's worse, if you have a genetic disease like my mother's, there is no way to escape the specter. It haunts you daily.

And then a day comes when it's just too much to bare.

My brother and I drove my mom to the mental health hospital in a nearby town. It was a four hour drive. But we got her there, and for several weeks they worked with her doing counseling and medication based therapy.

When they released her, they released her as "balanced." Not stable, mind you, but "balanced." I still don't know what that even means. But I guess because she cannot be cured of her depression she's destined to be forever bouncing from stable to unstable, like a sea-saw or teetter-totter. At least she's balanced though.

It's a hard knock life. Harder for some than others.

How I coped with her depression then was to run away from it. It worked for me. It didn't work for her.

Now I see that wasn't perhaps the best choice. If I would have stuck around, been there more, well, maybe I could have stopped her from attempting to kill herself.

I think of all those who suffer from depression and are alone. I mean, truly alone. Who will be there to stop them when that fateful day comes when all the world becomes too much to bare?

How do we cope?

With love. Being there for the other person. It's simple really.

No need for prayers to God. My mother is still a believing Christian, but if there is one prayer that God has consistently ignored, it's her prayer to be free of the darkness that descends upon her and seeks to ruin her from the inside out.

Answering the Question: How I Deal with Depression

So, as an atheist, I now realize that WE need to step up. 

We need to be there for each other. 

We need to open our arms and lovingly take in our brothers and sisters, our fellow humans, and be with them in their time of need.

How I have coped with depression over the years may not be the best advice I have ever given. But it's what I know. Granted, everyone's situation is different, so all considered, please bare with me.

Some are like my mother, always battling the dark demons that perpetually haunt them. Others, like myself, rarely ever get depressed.

Although suicide has never crossed my mind, personally, I still have had one serious run in with depression.

About a year ago I experienced my first real bout of depression. Although, at first, I was unaware of what was happening to me.

All I knew at the time was that I was fatigued,  I had begun a horribly strenuous new job, I had no money, I couldn't take any sick days off for a year, and I had a two year old to take care of. On top of this we had fallen into debt. What's worse, I had nobody to talk to. And so, I fell into a perpetual bout of serious boredom.  

For whatever reason, everything seemed boring to me, and for two long weeks I was so bored by everything that I was downright sick of everything and everyone.

I felt like a zombie, walking sluggishly through a murky sea of mediocrity and blandness. Whenever I tried to cheer myself up by watching my favorite comedy or going for a jog, I'd give up after just a few minutes. 

I just had no interest. No drive. Everything was so blah.

Then somebody suggested to me that I might be severely depressed and that I needed to find somebody to talk to.

At first I tried talking with my wife. But every-time I tried to talk to her about it our conversation degraded into a serious discussion about our finance woes. The stress only worsened my condition. So talking to my wife was out of the question.

Because we had recently moved to a new city, I didn't know anyone yet, and had no friends to confide in. I had nobody to talk to.

But the Fates favored me, for at my lowest, I received a phone call about a part time gig working on a tropical island doing a multicultural summer camp for children.

Since we desperately needed the money, I took the gig. 

It was five days of hiking, barbecuing,  playing with kids, and getting to meet new faces. 

The counselors all bunked together. Men in one cabin. Women in the other. We stayed up all night talking. We shared. We griped. We laughed. We sang a few songs. We had a grand ole time.

It was great therapy for me. It was exactly what I needed.

On top of this, the physical exerciser of hiking nearly from sun up to sun down, up and down a mountain, across treacherous terrain whilst having to keep a gaggle of school kids together, was some of the best exercise of my life. 

It did me good.

I came back from that summer camp more refreshed than ever.

So now, whenever I get down in the dumps, I go for long walks. Real long. I'm talking pack up my iPod, put on the headphones, and come back at night when the final track has played.

It really helps to clear my mind. And thanks to the summer camp, I now have friends I can talk to if need be.

I know, I know, this anecdote boils down to having people to talk to, taking walks, and getting a bit of fresh air.

Still, it works better than prayer. As an atheist, I guarantee it.


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