Friday, July 26, 2013

I've Been a Bad Atheist

I have an evangelical urge. It's part of who I am. Because I like to spread whatever good news I feel I've come into possession of, I often find myself in conversations with people who think differently than me.

Atheism is something I have mixed feelings about sharing. A reason I am eager to share it: eliminating my illusions when it came to gods, demons, afterlives, supernatural powers and forces, lifted a veil from my eyes and gave my life a sense of urgency it did not hitherto possess.

A reason I am hesitant to share it: people--myself included--construct their own complex personal mythologies to get them through the night, a night that is often dark, lonely, and harsh. I have my illusions, no doubt. Attempting to grab other folks' illusions away from them feels unkind. Offering nothing to replace the stripped away illusion with can seem cruel. Sure, we can offer something to replace religion; but we have to ask if it's something that fits into a given individual's personal network of belief. Just to try to switch our concept of reason for their concept of a god can be like Indiana Jones switching a bag of sand for the idol in the temple, with similar results.

I talk and write a lot about the things I think and feel, and sometimes I strike different notes. Such is life. Sometimes I can be magnanimous in my atheism. I hope sometimes I can be inspiring with my atheism. Other times I know I can be bitter, angry, and belittling of other belief systems.

Such is the human creature. Because of that evangelical urge, I am worried that I don't always model the healthiest aspects of my atheism. I want you to believe like I believe. I want you to see through eyes unclouded by opiates. I want you to see a life stuffed with meaning because it is short, because it is temporary. I want you to experience the glory and horror of the state Jean Paul Sartre referred to as being 'condemned to freedom'. It's all quite exciting, and I want to sell it to you.

But then, I don't want you to suffer. I don't want anyone to feel despair. I believe it is okay to need religion. I believe everyone has some sort of religion, with or without gods.

I'm compelled to talk about these things, and I want to do so in the best way possible. I can't always do that. I view atheism as a leveler, rather than a positive belief. I want to be a good representative of that leveler, as well as for the positive beliefs I have constructed on the surface atheism has cleared. Atheists are a large and untrusted minority in this country; we have to talk about our unbelief if we want to change that.

 I was thinking I needed to take more care in how I talked about atheism, but maybe just talking honestly is the best way to go. Be it magnanimous, be it angry, be it bitter. We've just got to talk about it.

I've been a bad atheist, but I also think I've been a good one.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fuckin' Hobbies

I've started a few hobbies. Some of them may seem somewhat strange, but then I'm somewhat strange, so that shouldn't be surprising.

This--what I'm doing right now, this is a hobby. Blogging is a hobby. I do it a few times a week. Writing helps me relieve stress. I also have this little mood tracker on my phone that I think might be a hobby. I'm bipolar, you know, so I find it useful to record how I'm feeling three times a day. Is that a hobby? I'm not sure. I'm also looking into getting a jump rope, because my therapist suggested it. She said jumping rope is one of the best ways to release the brain's natural antidepressants. So, maybe jumping rope will become a hobby. I also lift weights every morning.

 I watch a lot of movies too. All kinds of movies. New movies. Old movies. Big movies, Small movies. Red movies, blue movies...that's a hobby. I also follow a few T.V. shows. I watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Peep Show, Girls, Dr. Who, Game of Thrones, and Adventure Time with my kids. I should probably add that I watch My Little Pony with my son Langston, who loves that show. It's a good show! I'm not ashamed of it. I also buy lots of books.

I've been collecting comic books lately, too. I used to collect them when I was a kid, and just started to collect them again to have something to do with my kids. It was going to be a casual thing, but then it took on a life of its own. I found myself deeply immersed in Swamp Thing, Sandman, Constantine, Animal Man, and Tomorrow Stories. The new 52 books are really good, and I'm reading all of the old Constantine and Swamp Thing comics as well as the new runs. I find myself eagerly looking forward to each new issue. It's not really about my kids anymore. I'm sucked in.

And now I feel this weird pull towards vinyl records. God help me. I was just listening to Marc Maron's intro to his interview with Thom Yorke, and he was talking about collecting records. I though, 'hey, I could get into that...'

What's wrong with me? What kind of hole am I trying to fill with all this shit? I used to think that life was about stripping away, getting closer to the source, etc. But here I am, collecting all kinds of hobbies.

Thank Christ sports have never appealed to me. Or cigars. Or golf. Rock climbing however...that seems kind of cool. And coins...a collection of rare coins might be neat. But then, I could always start raising chickens.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Andrew and Spencer: A Dialogue on Mental Health, part 2

Spencer: Depression is bullshit. Mania can be fun when it's not scary, but depression is a gigantic steaming bowl of hot bullshit. I have been laying around my house for the last two days watching Jason Statham movies because I just haven't been able to pull it together. And trust me, there's nothing like The Transporter 2 to reinforce depression. That's also one of the downsides of medication: I still have symptoms, they're just not as bad. When I went on meds I thought I'd be cured fully. Not so. Don't even get me started on the weight gain. Seriously, fuck today.

Andrew: Depression is definitely bullshit!

I also have my bad days when I'm on medication. I think that's the trickiest thing about living with depression: Even on medication you can't live like you used to; you can't live like a normal person. Depression is a disease that (at least for me) can only be managed well or managed poorly. I've given up on any kind of real cure.

Managing it well usually consists of eating healthy, exercising regularly, and consistently taking my medication, but it's incredibly difficult to be that disciplined. Taking a day off from exercise might open the door for the symptoms of depression to creep right back in, and before you know it I'm lying in bed watching Jason Statham movies, even though I had been doing just fine the day before. Of course taking a day off or a month off regular exercise and eating right might not do anything to my mood either. It's the randomness of the disease that is most frightening. Any day I could wake up and be unable to get out of bed. Any day I could snap at everyone around me because I'm so exhausted. Any day I may have to cancel plans with friends, or call off work, or delay a project I need to finish. It's hard to live like that. Hard to want to go on living like that.

Spencer: I still need to accept what you say: managing it well is the best we can do. Secretly, I think I'm still holding out for a magical pill. There is something romantic about our illnesses though, I have to admit. It's easy to see myself as the tortured artist, and to count myself among a special pedigree. It feels special to have the same affliction as Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway and people like that. I don't know. Maybe that is perverse.

Andrew: Don't get me wrong I still long for that magic pill, but after switching medicines a bazillion times, basically trying every anti-depressant known to man, I can't see it coming any time soon.

I think you're right that as artists its easy for us romanticize our illness, to see ourselves as following in the tradition of a Van Gogh or Hemingway, but I don't think it's perverse at all. Science has discovered a real link between mental illness and artistic modes of thinking and expression. For better and worse we have inherited something that makes us different, that the vast majority of people have difficulty understanding. Because of that I look to those suffering artists as my heroes. Their lives, though tragic in the end, point us to a way of living with mental illness while still doing something that's fulfilling with our lives. And luckily we have the benefit of modern medicine to help us better manage our illness than they did. We may never reach the artistic heights that they accomplished with their lives but why the hell not try? Let's make something beautiful with the shit we're given to work with.

Spencer: I agree. We need to hear the stories of folks who have had similar experiences as us, and to see their struggles and successes. That's why it's important for us to talk to each other. I'm grateful to have someone like you to share my struggles with, Andrew. Hopefully more people can find others to pair up with out there.

(for part 1, click here.)

Friday, July 19, 2013

H.P. Lovecraft Furnishes Us With a Good Reason Not To Commit Suicide

 [re-posted from April, 2013]

It may seem strange to most people that one would need a reason not to commit suicide, but there are those of us out there who need one. To some, knowing that the self checkout lane is open is actually a consolation. Hunter S. Thompson said "If I didn't know I could commit suicide at any moment, life would be unbearable". Of course, there are many reasons not to kill yourself. ' This Too Shall Pass' is the protective motto of those traversing the Territory of the blackest mind. The transitory nature of everything is reason enough to see if you can ride it out when it comes to depressed states, mixed states, and plain old bad luck.

Far be it from me to suggest such a thing is easy. As a person with manic depression, I understand how the poisoned mind can laugh at our stoic bearings. Far be it from me also to suggest that there is anything inherently evil, selfish, or wrong about suicide. Sometimes, suicide is in fact a reasonable choice. Some choose to end their lives rather than experience prolonged pain and suffering connected to a chronic illness. I understand this choice, and would probably choose it for myself if it ever seemed necessary. Also, suicide is often committed by people with mental health issues, such as myself. They do this while in the grips of a disease, and faulting a person who kills themselves in such a state is akin to faulting a person with a heart disorder for dying of a heart attack.

One of the ways people such as myself manage to survive is to remind ourselves of the transitory nature of our suffering. Another is to participate in therapy or counseling. Another is to take medication that is appropriate to our illness, exercise, eat healthy, and get good rest. Another way that has benefited me is to seek out folks who share my experience and struggle, and to empathize with them and learn from their hard won wisdom (all wisdom is hard won, isn't it?).

That brings me to the excerpt I wanted to share with you. I am a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan. I love his stories, but what I am coming to love even more than his stories are his letters. He was a great letter writer, and in the below excerpt he talks about a time he seriously considered suicide, and how he navigated his way back out of it:

"How easy it would be to wade out among the rushes and lie face down in the warm water till oblivion came. There would be a certain gurgling or choking unpleasantness at first--but it would soon be over. Then the long, peaceful night of non-existence..."
But something held him up:
"And yet certain elements--notably scientific curiosity and a sense of world drama--held me back. Much in the universe baffled me, yet I knew I could pry the answer out of books if I lived and studied longer. Geology, for example. Just how did these ancient sediments and stratifications get crystallized and upheaved into granite peaks? Geography--just what would Scott and Shackleton and Borchgrevink find in the great white Antarctic or their next expeditions...which I could--if I wished--live to see described?"
Lovecraft goes through questions about history, Africa, Mathematics, and other intellectual curiosities that he would miss out on if he snuffed himself out, ultimately concluding,
"So in the end I decided to postpone my exit till the following summer. I would do a little curiosity-satisfying at first; filling certain gaps of scientific and historical knowledge, and attaining a greater sense of completeness before merging with the infinite blackness."
after finding himself engaged in life to a much greater degree on this path of postponement--starting up an old newsletter, finding more questions at the ends of questions answered--he decided to grant himself another extension:
"Possibly I would wait til '06 before making my could drown in '06 just as well as in '05 or '04!'
Questions of life and death and meaning popped up over and over again in Lovecraft's life--he kept a cyanide pill on his person at all times just in case 'it ever got too much'--but he found his way through that particular darkness with the aid of curiosity.

Curiosity is a fine reason to go on living. I had just discovered Billy Collins a little bit before the suicide of a dear friend several years back, and was very excited to share it with him the next time he was in town. Before I had a chance to do that, he had jumped off an overpass in Tennessee. Not far after all of the other assorted kinds of thoughts a person has after receiving such news, it occurred to me that my friend would never get to experience Billy Collins. My friend--a highly intelligent, clever, soulful person--had missed out on something I was pretty sure he would have liked.

I am always discovering new things. Life is about change and possibility, and who knows what is waiting for us in the future? It's a compelling reason to stick around.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Andrew & Spencer: A Dialogue on Mental Health, part 1

 My friend Andrew Wood and I both have a mental health diagnosis. We have been talking back and forth about our illnesses--Bipolar in my case, Depression in his--over the past week or so, and decided to make our conversation public. We want to raise awareness of what it means--and doesn't mean--to have a mental illness, and to give strength to others who may benefit from reading about two guys who are going through the same thing that so many folks in this country are going through, often privately. It is recorded that 1 in 4 people in the United States have some kind of mental health issue, yet the stigma surrounding mental illness is deep and wide. Even people suffering from mental illness can internalize the stigmas that they are unable to be successful, or hold healthy relationships, or live a meaningful life, or just 'keep it together'. These stigmas are false. Andrew and I hope to contribute to tearing them down. This will be at least a two-parter.

Spencer: I remember my last break down. I could feel the gears grinding against one another in my soul. It was familiar territory; I had been cycling heavily for months, and was acutely aware of the fact that this break down might be the last one I could handle. Sobbing, I called my wife to let her know I was certain something was going to have to change: I was going to have to go on medication. I had avoided this conclusion for months, but I was cracking. I could see the crash coming; my job, my family, and my sanity were on the line. My wife said she understood, and I made an appointment with my doctor. Medicated or otherwise, life can feel like 'one damn thing after another'; a constant barrage of events, an endlessly moving train without a clear destination. No respite anywhere in sight. With a mood disorder, this effect can be heightened, and goddammit, it's overwhelming. I knew I would need medication, and knowing medication works best when paired with talk therapy, I also found a therapist.

Andrew: I know the feeling all too well. For me these "down" times would last for months. They were months that I felt completely fatigued all day, when I could barely drag myself out of bed at three in the afternoon, let alone at 8am when I was supposed to be up for class. And there was a fogginess about everything: that feeling you have when you first wake up in the morning, the haziness of your brain struggling to switch gears from dreaming to being alert, except that this was how I felt all day. Add in a dose of negative and suicidal thoughts that are playing in loops like film reels in my head and you had the recipe for major depression. Well, medically my case is called minor depression disorder, but let me tell you there was nothing minor about it. My brain going on the fritz disrupted everything I thought I was, and when my family and friends took notice I knew I had to do something about it. At the urging of my parents, and with their help, I made an appointment to see the doctor.

Spencer: The suicidal thoughts are hard to explain to someone who has never been depressed. Intrusive thoughts in general are overwhelming. It's like mental force-feeding. No matter what the problem is, your mind offers 'kill yourself' as an answer. Then, in the deeper depressions, you can get deep down into the mechanics of how, when, and where to kill yourself, losing sight of the possibility of not killing yourself altogether. People wonder why a person would consider suicide, but that implies some kind of choice. The thoughts are forced on us. Our brain is betraying us. Other intrusive thoughts are the same: paranoia, fears of betrayal, perceiving violence where there is none. When I was still religious I would imagine I was receiving messages from God through subtle means like energy fields I thought I could perceive hovering around people. I would think I felt the presence of demons, too. Now I fixate on other things, but I know I have bipolar disorder, so it's easier to manage.

Andrew: I think you've really nailed what it "feels" like to be suicidal. Thoughts of suicide are definitely that unwelcome guest who initiates the same conversation over and over again. And for some reason, even though he's repetitive, he always gets your attention. It was a relief when I started taking medication, and my guest was kicked out of the house. It's exhausting to have to try not to listen to him drone on day in and day out. I think that's why I've never really felt that upset that I'll probably have to take pills the rest of my life. It levels me out, makes it possible to get out of bed, and most importantly it gets "those thoughts" out of my head.
I'm always wary to talk about having felt suicidal though. There's usually not many people I share that with. There's a lot of social stigma attached to even admitting that you've felt like killing yourself. I've found that even mentioning it really freaks the hell out of my close family and friends... which I guess is understandable. But I think if that stigma wasn't there people would be more likely to be open about how they're feeling, and to seek the help they need in order to overcome the depression that's led them to that point.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Peacemakers and War Pigs

This morning on Facebook I declared that--in spite of my temperament-- I would like to be one of the peacemakers in life. Clearly, I am a war-like and easily agitated creature, but I admire those who manage to unite others, and project peace upon the world.

That thought was good enough for a while, but then I thought, 'isn't a fight often called for?' How often does the urge to peace-make equate to tepid pacifism in the face of oppression, or turn out to be a mere haughty pose struck for the sake of self-deification?

There are so many good reasons to take up arms, both literally and metaphorically. There are so many reasons to be offended. It's in my nature to fight. As constructive as I'd like to be in my best moments, the urge to start fires is never too far away. How does a person reconcile these impulses?

Have I established a false dichotomy? Is it actually possible to both create and destroy, and to remain internally consistent while doing so? Must we be consistent?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dialectic Materialism and Family Growth

Dialectic Materialism, as defined by the Free Dictionary:
"The Marxian interpretation of reality that views matter as the sole subject of change and all change as the product of a constant conflict between opposites arising from the internal contradictions inherent in all events, ideas, and movements."
Mankind is a vast historical entity, and our individual families are its various cells. These little cells can be viewed as microcosms of humanity as a whole. Within our family cells, we have parents (the established order) and children (the under class).

Capitalism must by its very nature have an exploiting and an exploited class. Our families--since our families are parts of our communities, and our communities patch together larger communities and ultimately our society as a whole--tend to echo the prevailing social order in their structure, and thus parents can be counted on to exploit their children, and children can be counted on to resent--and ultimately rebel--against their parents.

Is this bad? I don't know. A revolutionary family might be proud of the rebellion of their children, although wouldn't rebellion against a revolutionary family ultimately be rebellion in favor of the larger social system? Therefore wouldn't a revolutionary parent be forced to behave as the exploiting class in the prevailing system does and in some way oppress or stifle their rebellious little hellions?

I don't think it needs to come to this, but then again, I'm no expert on parenting. My oldest child is still two years away from being a teenager, and I know the kind of discord puberty can bring to a family.

On one hand, I want my children to rebel. Even against me. I think the family is, in a sense, the training ground for the larger society. If I treat my children in an egalitarian fashion, they will expect egalitarian treatment from the real world. If I slip--as I am sure to do--into a hypocritical and authoritarian mode, I want my children to challenge me. I want them to know what it is like to challenge authority, and I want them to know what it is like to win. I want them to know I am fallible. Surely they will find this out, so it might as well be from my own mouth.

On the other hand, I am also very invested in having a strong interpersonal relationship with my children as they get older. Especially when they are in their late twenties and early thirties, I want them to feel they can come to me and talk to me, receiving my full sympathy, attention, and respect. What will our inevitable teenage conflicts do to this later bond? I don't know.

I know there has to be conflict, and I know I am inevitably cast in the role of 'the man' in my children's lives, for good or ill. Being a father is teaching me a lot about leadership, and about relationships with unequal power. It teaches me a lot about the function of state, and the relationship between the proletariat and the capitalist. The relationship between the 1% and the rest of the population in this country is irreversibly rotten. The goal for me as a parent is to avoid this rottenness in my tiny little cell of the system. To allow for a healthy give and take between myself and my offspring, and to know when it's time to step down from my role as an authority figure and to take a supporting role.

Maybe the time to step down is immediately.