Trigger warning.

Back at the end of 2013, I spent a couple of weeks at a psych hospital. I had been dealing with depression and anxiety for some time, and it had gotten to the point where a weekly counseling session wasn’t enough to keep me afloat. So I started a “partial hospitalization” treatment program, which meant that a) I got to drive myself there and back every day, and b) they fed me lunch.

One of the first things we were taught in this program was to become mindful of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors at any given time. To pay attention to how we were doing, particularly as it related to input we received from others. In other words, to become mindful of triggers—events, words, or actions that have the potential to “trigger” a negative emotional reaction, and lead to a depressive episode.

But we were also taught that all input from others is ultimately neutral. In other words, anything that another person says or does only carries meaning because of how we judge, color, and interpret that input. This idea was concisely summed up in the following phrase: “We trigger ourselves.”

If I get angry, or depressed, or anxious, it’s not really because of a situation, or a person, or anything external to me. It’s because I have, almost reflexively, made a connection between what is happening now, and some negative memory or belief that I carry around in my head. And it is my responsibility to be aware of these reflexive connections, and to challenge them. Is someone insulting me? Then I can ask myself what value I place on their input, and what I believe about myself. Am I feeling overwhelmed? Then I can ask myself why I feel the need to manage and control everything around me. And so on.

This was life-changing for me. Through practice, I have been able to see with ever-increasing clarity how much control I really have over my emotional state, and how little other people have over it. As with everything else I write about here, this is definitely a work in progress. But I have seen a lot of success with it so far.

CharliehebdoBut there’s a reason why I am bringing this up right now. As we all know, about a week and a half ago, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamic terrorists, who forced their way into the building and opened fire, murdering twelve people and injuring eleven others. The reason for the attack? Charlie Hebdo had a history of publishing cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Islam prohibits any depiction of Muhammad to begin with, and the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo often lampooned Islamic extremism. (The image to the right reads, “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!”)

In the aftermath of the attack, a debate surfaced about whether or not Charlie Hebdo was in some way complicit in what happened. Had they provoked a violent backlash by knowingly causing insult to Islam? Many seemed to adopt the line that of course, violence is terrible and wrong, but neither should we deliberately inflame tensions by insulting religious beliefs. Pope Francis himself, in addressing this issue, said “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.

But why not?

It’s important to remember what “faith” is. “Faith” refers to a belief system which has been adopted by an individual. Whether someone grew up in a particular religious community or converted to that religion later in life, there is still at some point a decision made on the part of the individual to affirm the truth of that belief system. “Yes, I believe this to be true.”

Certainly, each person has the right to make such an affirmation. People can choose to believe whatever they wish to believe. But of course one person’s beliefs have no bearing on anyone else.

Or do they?

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that a corporation’s religious beliefs can exempt that corporation from providing access to employee medical coverage that violates those beliefs. Notably, Justice Alito (in the majority opinion) wrote the following:

It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.

In other words, one person’s beliefs (in this case, the Hobby Lobby corporation) do in fact have bearing upon other people, regardless of whether or not anyone else shares those beliefs, or whether or not they are even true.

According to this logic, Charlie Hebdo was wrong to print cartoons of Muhammad. It didn’t matter that they didn’t believe that depictions of Muhammad were blasphemous. It only mattered that someone else believed it.

And once a belief is called “religious”, it is automatically excluded from debate. We can never question the validity or veracity of a religious belief; that would be offensive. We must simply accept that it is someone’s “faith” and remain hands-off.

Because if we don’t…

If we don’t, people holding that religious belief will take swift measures to prevent such offense from occurring again. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was horrifying, but the same religious impulse—the need to force non-adherents of a belief system to be subject to that system—informs the Hobby Lobby case, as it also informs the current flood of “religious freedom” laws in our state legislatures aimed at keeping homosexuals out of cake shops.

And why is non-adherence to someone else’s belief system so offensive? You’d have to ask them. Ask them why they can’t abide dissent. Ask them why they insist upon having their beliefs enshrined in the public square and even in the law itself. Ask them why they can’t handle someone else not believing what they believe.

Are they being offended by blasphemous non-believers, or are they just triggering themselves?

It is not my responsibility to avoid “triggering” people who choose to uphold a certain belief system, and who cannot handle it when I do not. I am not responsible for the existential need that drives people to religion, nor is it my responsibility to tiptoe around their beliefs, lest I tread on one and reveal just how fragile they are. These people are responsible for managing themselves.

Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) has become the rallying cry of those supporting Charlie Hebdo. I am also Charlie. I am also the woman affected by the Hobby Lobby decision. I am also the gay man facing discrimination from the workplace to the wedding altar.

It all springs from the same source.

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The illogical beast.

I’d like to write about depression this week. Not because it’s been in the news. (Though I’m glad that it has been.) I’d like to write about this subject for a much more personal reason. As it happens, I’ve been experiencing a depressive episode for the past several days.

I’ve come to realize recently just how much depression is a disease. Part of me had always resisted that label. Disease. It made it sound like I had the chicken pox or something. Or that I were creating a false equivalence between my ailment and, say, cancer. Something legitimate.

Despite everything that I’ve experienced and learned, I still struggled with the nagging doubt that this was “all in my head”. And I had always wanted to believe that there existed some remedy that could make me “better”. A change in circumstances, or behavioral patterns, or the application of any of the tools I had learned while in treatment for depression.

To me, depression was primarily a logical beast. I felt that if I could reason with it, barter with it, then it would shuffle away and leave me alone. “If I engage in mindful living, will you no longer afflict me?” “If I exercise more?” “If I sleep better?” “If I eat better?” “If I spend more time playing guitar?”

But I have had to admit that depression is utterly unconcerned with the remedial activities in which I may engage. It comes and goes as it pleases. There may be a reason, a trigger, for a depressive episode. There may be several. Or there may be none. It may simply appear.

To be sure, there are things that I can do to prepare. I can board up the doors and windows, and make sure I’m stocked up on bread and toilet paper. But none of that provides a guarantee of safety. The power may still go out. The house may still be damaged, or flooded. And the waters will remain until they recede.

Right now, the house is still flooded. And I’m trying to wait it out as best I can. Writing is one thing I’ve chosen to do in the meantime. It’s not an easy task at the moment. One of the more insidious aspects of depression is its sabotage of any attempt to reach out. Interacting with others becomes difficult, and feels impossible. Even writing becomes laborious, when the writing is about how I’m really doing.

The biggest reason why I’ve resisted labeling this thing a “disease” is that I want to have hope that someday I won’t be bothered by depression anymore. Because it really does suck. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. Which I don’t say to be fatalistic or, well, depressive. It may simply be the truth.

Which is fine, I guess. I can treat it. I can practice the things that I’ve been taught. For the most part, I’m able to do what I need to do. I hold down a job. I keep the kids from killing each other. And I try to work on my quality of life. But I do get tired sometimes.

What don’t I want?

I used to know what I wanted. In life, I mean. I had that figured out. One of the benefits of religion is that it provides you with those big-picture answers. And I was super religious.

But then something happened: I lost my faith. Ever since, I’ve spent most of my time figuring out what I don’t want. I don’t want religion. I don’t want church. I don’t want religious people. Above all, I don’t want reminders of my former religious life.

This was an important process for me, as historically I’ve allowed myself to be persuaded into decisions that I wasn’t really sure about, particularly when it came to religion. So I had to be clear about the ongoing role of religion in my life. It was a categorical “no”.

Unfortunately, that clarity came a bit late for me. I had started and ended my ministry career at a church in Illinois. (I’ve written about this before: the short version is that it was a traumatic experience that catalyzed the loss of faith I mentioned above.) My family and I moved away soon afterward, eventually settling in Texas.

Then one day, we got a call from our old church. They had a new staff position available, and they wanted to hire my wife for it. Which would mean relocating back to Illinois. She was excited; I was not. But the prospect of redeeming my past experience at this church was seductive. Even though I was agnostic-leaning-atheist by this point, part of me still wanted to believe that everything had happened “for a reason”.

So we moved back. And it was a disaster. Not only did I fail to reconnect with this church that had once been the hub of my social, spiritual, and professional life, but the same thing happened to my wife that had happened to me years before. She found herself marginalized and out of a job less than two years into it.

We had bought a house here. We had a mortgage and a new car payment. We couldn’t afford to be without my wife’s salary. So she found the first, best thing she could. She started working at a Starbucks, as a store manager. Which in practice meant that she woke up while it was still dark, and was in bed by dinnertime. For the next year, as she was dealing with the trauma of the experience, and as I was dealing with the re-traumatization of watching this all happen again, we barely saw each other. It took us the next several years, including a separation, to come to grips with the experience and its effect on us.

This is where my clarity came from. No more religion. No more church. No more religious people. And above all, no reminders of my former religious life.

That last part has been tricky. When we moved back here, we had chosen an area that would place us as close to the church as possible. Which means that my wife and I now play church roulette every time we go out somewhere. We never know who we might bump into, and what awkward conversations might ensue. (Both my wife and I have been berated for giving up on the church.)

And for me, this entire area feels poisoned. I have years of memories attached to this place, most of which come from my time in the church. But lingering behind it all is a nagging sense that I didn’t really choose to be here. That I was too passive, and allowed this to happen. And now I’m stuck here.

Now, I realize that saying “I’m stuck here” may itself sound too passive, but it’s the honest truth. We don’t have the money to relocate; even if we did, the kids are settled here, my wife has a great job here (not Starbucks), and we’ve started to put down roots again.

Well, at least everyone else has. I’ve been holding back on that. Avoiding emotional investment. I still have a telecommuting job that enables me to work from any location. And I’ve stayed with that job long past the point of necessity, primarily because I don’t want to give up that hope of escape. Even if it is only illusory.

The net effect of which has been that I feel disconnected from my own life. I’ve gotten very good at identifying what I don’t want, which I oftentimes confuse for what I do want. But “I don’t want to be here” isn’t a direction. It’s the absence of direction. It’s nothing.

What am I to do? The part of me that sounds wiser tells me to give up the job, find something here, and accept that this is now my home. The rest of me, however, tells that part of me to go fuck itself. It wants to move to the Southwest and start over.

This is where I have to leave it, because this is where I am right now. This is where I’ve been for years. I don’t have an answer yet. But I need to do something. I’ve done “nothing” long enough.

On writing.

I’ve been working on song lyrics. Otherwise known as “poetry”, I guess, since I don’t have any music written yet. But “song lyrics” sounds cooler. And that’s the ultimate intent.

I had some ideas that I typed out and erased. I should probably just write them in a journal instead. Preferably on a desert island somewhere.

But then I suppose that if I were living on a desert island, I wouldn’t have much to write about.

That’s the irony of artistic expression. I’m just not inspired to write if nothing’s on my mind. And by “nothing” I mean nothing negative, or upsetting. If everything is fine, I’ll just go outside or otherwise live my life. It’s the dark moments that demand a voice.

But I don’t enjoy dark moments. Especially when they extend beyond “moments” and stretch on for months or years. I don’t want to have anything to write about. I’d rather just be happy, and not write anything.

Music therapy.

Guitar: check. Amp: check. Learning how to play again: check.

My plan is to get back into shape as a guitarist, then start writing stuff again. It’s been a long time since I consciously sat down to write something involving notes and chords. I’m looking forward to it.

Being “over 40” is a funny thing. It’s clarified for me that there are things in life that I still want to do. Priorities that I still want to… well, prioritize. And if any of that is to happen, then it needs to come from me.

I spent much of my last decade being passive about my life. After an abrupt career transition when I was 30, I decided to park it in my new job. My ambition sort of melted away, and as our family kept growing, I rationalized more and more the necessity of my new career—we needed the money, I needed the job, that was basically it. But all of that was a cover for the fact that I had been wounded and didn’t really feel like playing the game anymore.

It’s still an uphill battle for me, finding the motivation to pursue the things I want.

A big part of that is the fact that I have four children, and I’m at home with them all day. This is not to say that I resent them, or the effort it takes to raise them. I often find myself wishing that I could quit my job (I telecommute) and just “parent” all day. As it is, I feel like I’m doing a half-assed job of it. “Not now; daddy has to finish this up.”

But it’s the combination of a full-time job and the emotional requirements of parenting that leave me feeling like my tank is empty at the end of every day. This thing that I’m doing now with music—getting back into practice with guitar playing (and hopefully more)—is an attempt to add something in there that refills the tank a bit.

Do I wish that I didn’t have any family responsibilities at all, so I could devote more time to my own pursuits? I’ve asked myself that question before. But my answer has always been “no, not really.” My life is richer because of my children. Immeasurably so. I couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t have them in it. And I really enjoy them as people.

I think I’m just tired. Like, on an emotional level. What I would love is to have a week to myself alone in the house. No work, no anything. I’ve been able to do that before. And I’ve found that I end up having more energy to do things around the house, and more interest in things in general.

I’ve learned enough by now to understand what that means. Being emotionally overwhelmed is draining. Which is where I live on a daily basis. But in those down times when I haven’t been wiped out from emotional exhaustion, I get to see what I’m really like, or what I could be like. It’s a lot more enjoyable to be that person. The trick for me is to tip the scales a bit more from “stressed out all the time” to something that feels more human.

Because it really does take a toll on me. I can feel it. It’s like the engine is being revved too high, but the car is still in park. I’ve written before about anxiety, and I’m sure that that is a big part of this. And I am trying to take some steps to address that. But I guess I’m still writing about it now because it’s still very much affecting me now.

My hope is that the guitar will help. Not as a therapeutic tool, but because it’s something I love doing. And because “something I love” is the direction I want my life to take. Better to learn this at over-40 than never at all, right?

Music practice.

This past week, I was able to locate a cool guitar amp. It should work well for what I want to do. And now I’m suddenly realizing that I have everything I need to get started. Which feels strange.

For so long, I’d told myself that I “couldn’t” play or write music anymore, because I didn’t have the equipment to do so. I had created a narrative that shifted all responsibility from myself onto the circumstances of my life. It became a kind of perverse comfort to me. I cast myself as the helpless victim, and gave myself license to feel constantly aggrieved.

Why so much effort? Why would I try so hard to keep from doing the thing that I loved? Now that I’m moving in that direction again, it’s starting to become clearer: I’m afraid. Music is still, on some level, something that I feel was “taken away from me”. And even though I’m engaged in a deliberate process of reclaiming that—perhaps because I am—these feelings are resurfacing.

The visual that I’m getting (because my brain likes to think in metaphor) is of me stepping out onto the high dive platform at my old school’s swimming pool. I used to jump off that thing all the time, back when I was in seventh grade. But every time that I would do it, part of me would be thinking, “you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Because it’s true; I didn’t. I suppose that was part of the thrill. I was flinging myself out into space, with no real plan for what I would do between the jump and the water. But I did it often enough that I got used to it. It was fun.

But the specific visual in my head isn’t of that childhood memory. I’m imagining me returning to that high dive now, as an adult. About halfway up the ladder, I would probably start to reconsider the decision. And by the time I reached the top and looked around, I would probably be thinking “fuck fuck fuck”. But then to run and jump off the end of the platform? I don’t even know what I would do.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have a million questions in my head, I’m second-guessing myself, I’m feeling like I’m not up to the task—in short, I’m nervous as hell.

But I have been taking steps toward getting myself back in shape, musically speaking. I practice throughout the day, leaving my guitar slung over my shoulder as I fill out TPS reports for work. I’ve also been using this blog to get back into shape as a songwriter. The way I see it, there’s no point in writing lyrics if I’m not willing to connect to myself and to what I’m really feeling. That’s what I’ve been trying to do here.

I think I’d also like to go out to a record store today. For inspiration, and because it’s fun.

And then, more practice.

Unearthing.

Back in 1995, I had just graduated from college but was still living on campus, auditing a classical Greek course and trying to save money for seminary. I didn’t end up saving a whole lot of money, but I did learn how to read classical Greek pretty well.

I also had a lot more free time than I was used to, despite working a full-time job and having the Greek course to study for. College life had been all-consuming for me, and now most of my friends were gone. And my full-time job was at a Walmart distribution center, where my job consisted of taking merchandise-filled cardboard boxes from pallets, sticking UPC labels on them, and putting them on a conveyor belt.

It wasn’t what you would call a mentally challenging job. I had a lot of time to myself. I had always viewed solitude as a blessing, but things had happened recently which made the prospect of being alone with my thoughts less enjoyable.

Before the distribution center, I had had a part-time job at our college’s campus bookstore. That job had also given me a lot of time to myself—I worked back in the stockroom, which was a one-person job given the size of our college. I must have unpacked and stocked a lot of books, but mostly I remember using a lot of Goo Gone to remove price stickers from books to be returned. It was in the stockroom of that campus bookstore that I first experienced a panic attack.

Prior to that point, I didn’t know what a panic attack really was. I imagined it to be something that would manifest itself externally, like flailing your arms around and generally acting as though you were in a panic. But it wasn’t like that for me.

What I remember is an intense sensation that I could not do whatever it was that I was doing anymore. I had to get away immediately. I was shaking, I was unable to concentrate, and honestly I kind of felt like I was going crazy. After a while, I asked the manager if I could go home, because “I wasn’t feeling well.”

(At around that time, in what I had believed to be an unrelated incident, I had woken up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, and had to be taken to the hospital. I was given a breathing treatment and an albuterol inhaler, and thereafter believed that I had asthma.)

Now I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I do know that by the time I was working at the distribution center, I had decided to seek counseling. Because I knew that something was up. (Back then, the words “panic attack” hadn’t yet formed in my brain to describe what had happened. I Just knew that I wasn’t supposed to experience things like that.)

This was the first time that I had ever seen a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. I quickly learned the salient difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, however: psychiatrists can write prescriptions. So I got one, for Paxil. I was determined to be suffering from depression, and the medication was meant to help alleviate symptoms. I only took it for a short time, however, because the side effects (common to anyone familiar with SSRIs) were startling and seemed counter-productive.

What I know now is that the side effects of antidepressants typically kick in immediately, whereas the therapeutic benefits usually don’t appear for a few weeks. But at the time, I was only feeling nervous and jittery, which was the opposite of what I wanted. I discontinued the medication shortly thereafter, and didn’t ask for another one. I also decided that I didn’t much like my counselor anymore, because I was looking for explicitly Christian answers to my problems, which he was not able to offer me.

That was the beginning of my experience with the world of mood disorders and their treatment. For about the next five years, I didn’t seek out any counseling (or medication), believing that God was going to heal me of my depression. (I had even told my pastor and his wife that I had been healed of it, in the midst of a discussion about a relative of theirs who was struggling with depression. I had wanted that to be true, and I felt that I could will it to be true by proclaiming it to be so.)

Eventually, however, I went back to a doctor (not a psychiatrist) for a prescription for Zoloft, because I had been feeling the depression come back again. Zoloft was similar to Paxil, but this time I decided to stick with it. I skipped the counseling part of the equation because my time in the evangelical Christian subculture (as well as my previous experience) had fostered in me a suspicion of psychologists. Nevertheless, I still ended up discontinuing the medication because I didn’t like the way it flat-lined me emotionally.

This cycle continued for some time: going to a doctor for a new antidepressant, trying it for a while, then discontinuing it. I went through Wellbutrin and Celexa and others that I don’t remember anymore. Finally, last year I got a prescription for Remeron from a bona fide psychiatrist—because I had been admitted to a partial hospitalization program for depression.

One of the most valuable things I learned there was to pay attention to myself. To identify my in-the-moment thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to trace them back to their possible causes. It’s been a learned skill which I still have to practice, but it led to an epiphany which you can guess yourself, as you read this. My problem wasn’t depression; it was anxiety.

Now, I do need to clarify that all mood disorders generally exist in the same space, and it’s often difficult to tease them out in that sort of concrete, categorical way. “I have depression.” “I have anxiety.” It’s usually a little of both. But what I realized was that for me, anxiety was the antecedent. It was the root cause.

What triggered this realization was a recent visit to my doctor. I came in complaining of possible allergies, and to get a refill on my albuterol inhaler, because I was feeling short of breath all the time. (I had been, on and off, ever since that night I was taken to the hospital 20 years ago.) When examined, the doctor could find nothing physically wrong with me, but gave me the names of a couple of specialists anyway.

Reflecting upon this later, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have asthma (or allergies) at all. The chronic shortness of breath that I had had for decades? That sounded familiar. It was, in fact, symptomatic of anxiety, which I had learned at my treatment center. I also started to notice that whenever I would feel short of breath, I would also feel like my pulse was racing, and that there was an undefined something that I had to do.

I started to think back through my past depressive episodes, and was startled to realize that in many cases, what had preceded the depression was a defensive anger, which was a sort of shield against the vulnerability I felt when I would become anxious about something. Eventually the shield would become too heavy, and I would collapse into depression.

But what lay behind the anxiety? This was the tough one. Not tough to figure out, but tough to admit and confront. What lay behind the anxiety was shame. I felt ashamed of myself, and wanted to get away from everyone, myself included. Oftentimes I couldn’t retreat, so up would go the shield. Then I would tire of that, and the depression would take over.

I’ve also learned that these cycles are learned behaviors. Eventually they can become templates that we use to deal with emotional situations. And that’s the work that lies ahead for me. Dismantling all of this stuff, and learning new ways to handle things.

To that end, I’ve decided to start seeing a counselor again—with a new sense of clarity about exactly what the hell is going on with me. Which may not sound like much fun, but I’m actually looking forward to it. It’s a lot better than the alternative.