Fundamentally Wrong: I Can’t Just Do It If I Choose

One of the deepest and oldest philosophical and psychological debates revolves around the concept of choice and free will. The question of whether we truly have control over our lives is something that comes up across all fields of human reasoning, from whether the universe is pre-determined to play out the way it does, to whether or not there is a god who gives us the perception or reality of choice.

These concepts are so basic that most people find themselves on one side or the other of the debate without really even knowing it, or understanding it. People are brought up with certain beliefs, and many of those beliefs – especially if they reinforce or are reinforced by the events in our lives – become indistinguishable from fact in our minds. The notion of god, or the concepts of organized religion, for example, survive by the very fact that they fit so well into the world-view of most of the world.

My wife, for example, was raised from an early age with the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to. She’s shared stories with my of her father teaching her and reinforcing these concepts, such as using ”elbow-grease” to clean the tub (which turned out, of course, to just be a great deal of physical effort, and not an actual cleaning product, much to her dismay). She learned from this, and it reinforced for her that with enough effort, you can succeed at almost anything. Indeed, her life and career has been largely successful, guided by this and other lessons learned from her youth.

I, on the other hand, was largely raised to believe that I was a success naturally, whether or not I put effort into something or not. I was praised as highly intelligent, as though somehow intelligence was in itself a success, and effort was rarely, if ever, rewarded. For that matter, many of the things I attempted as a child needed little effort, and through intellectualism I was often able to accomplish many great deeds. When I encountered something that I actually struggled with, I would more often than not simply give up, and was allowed to – moving on to something easier to achieve.

Just as much as my wife’s childhood led to her adult outlook on life, I’m sure my own influenced my current state of being, even to the extent of my mental disorders and never-ending depression. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to break out of, any more than you could convince a life-long Christian that there is no god. But it also leads to conflicts – often between my wife and myself – around the ability to do things, given one’s state of mind.

For example, we had a minor argument the other night around doing the dishes. We had already eaten dinner, and all that was left was to clean up the kitchen. Something that, physically, I am perfectly capably of doing. However, I have been struggling over the past month with a very, very severe depression, and the honest truth is that there are many times when I simply cannot do something.

I said as much to my wife on the night in question, and her response, born partly out of frustration that the house is perpetually a mess and partly, I’m sure, out of frustration that I was behaving in what she saw as a lazy and unproductive manner, was: ”You can if you choose to.”

This is where the conflict sets in, both from our views on the world, our lived experiences, and probably our upbringing. To me, in a state of chronic depression, there is no choice in the matter. I might as well have no arms or legs; the task of washing up after dinner is absolutely impossible. To her, it’s all a question of mental will: if you want to do something enough, you’ll do it.

I mistakenly made a poor, in-the-moment analogy of a physical, chronic illness: I said that by that measure, you could cure yourself of cancer if you chose to. Poor taste, poor analogy, it didn’t go over well, and we kind of got into a minor shouting match.

In hindsight, there are better analogies I can think of; the reason I chose the one I did is simply because people so very often assume that mental illnesses are somehow less than physical ones, or that they shouldn’t stop you from performing in the way that a physical disease might. Instead, I think a better comparison would be trying to lift a boulder: you can ’want’ to all you like, you can ’choose’ to lift it, but if the boulder weighs three tons, you’re not going to be budging it.

It’s so terribly difficult to describe what it’s like to be depressed to the point of incapacitation to someone who’s never experienced it. It feels impossible to convey the weight of emptiness that takes hold of every waking thought, and the way in which it makes even the simplest of tasks insurmountable. When I say I ’can’t’ do the dishes, I don’t mean I’m choosing not to; I mean I literally can’t do it.

Lately, there’ve been a lot of things I can’t do. I realize this must be making me extremely difficult to live with, and the mess I leave behind me, unable to clean up, only makes it worse. For what it’s worth, I do try to minimize my impact, only using dishes when absolutely necessary, and mostly just lying in bed to avoid disrupting the rest of the house. But I can’t live without creating some kind of path, whether it be hair in the shower or dishes in the sink, and I feel awful and guilty for it, but it doesn’t change my ability – or inability – to do anything about it. (By the same token, I am often unable to go to work.)

I appreciate the efforts that the world is taking to liken mental illness to physical illness, inasmuch as trying to get people to take mental disorders seriously. They are just as incapacitating as physical illnesses, and oftentimes just as, if not more, difficult to overcome. But perhaps a better likening might actually be to compare a mental illness to a physical incapability. If you are missing an arm, or weigh 100 pounds, there are certain things you may simply not be able to do – at least not without help. Humans are, of course, adept at overcoming adversity, but there are some things that are impossible to overcome on one’s own, and a mental illness is one of those things.

So when I say I can’t do something, please don’t assume I’m taking an easy path, or being lazy, or simply ’choosing’ not to put in effort. I choose the word ’can’t’ very deliberately; it means what it means.

One day I’ll gain the strength to lift the boulder; for now, I am weak.

What’s It Like to Not Be Depressed?

The fact that probably very few people will ever see this post doesn’t help, of course, but I’m very, very depressed at the moment. As in, to the point where I can barely function day-to-day, and the smallest of chores seem overwhelmingly impossible. I can’t even watch TV or play video games to zone out, because they seem pointless and inane. And for some odd reason I’m having trouble sleeping during the day, so all that’s left is to stare blankly at the wall.

I’m not necessarily concerned; I’ve been here before, and I’ll be here again, and it’s something I know all too well will pass in time. But that knowledge doesn’t alleviate the immense weight that is bearing down on me, making me feel like my life is meaningless, worthless, and destined to end in a pitiful whimper of existisitential boredom.

I think a part of my depression is coming from a deep social isolation as the world locks its doors and I stay home day after day; even for an introvert having limited human contact is psychologically harmful, and I’ve gone from a job where I interact with dozens of people a day to absolutely no one (at least not in person). It also doesn’t help that I’ve been riding a bipolar high for the past few weeks, and I know that this is a natural aspect of the downside of that high.

As I often do during these periods of affliction, I wonder what it must be like to not be depressed. And I don’t mean what it’s like to be happy, because I know happiness; I know joy, and the buzz of the bipolar high and the anxious, burning desire to create. But even in the whirlwind of emotions that come with that high, there’s a trace to depression. There’s a knowledge that the deep, dark despair is just on the other side of the coin, a hair’s breadth away and waiting eagerly to consume me. I can’t ever, ever escape depression, even at my happiest, and I wonder: what must it be like to simply not have these feelings?

I imagine, I suppose, that it must be a little bit like being high, or really, really drunk. A subconscious thread of uncaring, of believing that a better day awaits tomorrow. Sure, you might get sad, you might even feel depressed, but it’s because of something that happened, and eventually you work out how to handle that problem, put it behind you, and move on.

I wonder if living without depression is easy. I mean, I can understand that everyone faces struggles in life, but maybe it just boils down to the age-old glass-half-full mentality: perspective is everything. Is life a road with obstacles to be navigated, or is life all obstacles, and you somehow have to find a road between them? Imagine believing that there’s a road; imagine knowing that there’s a destination, and that it’s good. Imagine, if you can, a world where current events are just a stumbling block, and that the world might actually return to normal. Imagine a world of hope, and not one of despair.

You see, that’s the problem with depression. It’s all-consuming. There is no escaping it. Therapy, counseling, medications … they all do their part to alleviate the symptoms, but in the end it’s always there, underlying everything you think, say and do. I’ve lived with this for nearly twenty years, and despite my mental state’s mutations and changes, it’s one thing that has remained ever-constant.

I wish I could not be depressed. And I don’t mean now, in this moment, the feelings of drudgery and despair that are filling my head because of whatever chemical shift happens to be occurring in my head at the moment; I mean, I wish I could know what it’s like to just … not have to live with it. I suppose, really, what I’m asking for is to know what hope is.

Oh, fickle hope – between that and despair the world teeters. Some of us cling to one, and the rest can’t escape the other.

And in the end, what is there to do but trudge wearily through the snows of life? We can believe that there is sun to be found over the horizon, or we can believe that we will die before the day breaks; it doesn’t really change the realities of the world. The world is indifferent; the world doesn’t care.

But to think that the difference between hope and despair is a choice … that’s a belief I can’t hold. Ask yourself, truly: regardless of your own personal outlook, could you choose to be the other way? If you are depressed, can you choose to be happy? And if you’ve never known the cold, wretched clutches of despair, can you choose to feel that iron grip on your heart?

They say life is about choices, but I don’t know if there is such a thing. After all, you can’t ever know what the other outcome would have been, so what difference does any choice really make? I don’t know if there was ever a choice I made that led me to where I am now, how I feel; in the end, life is just what happens to you, and you can try to make the most of it all you like, but in the end – how much does it really matter?

Like I said, I’m very, very depressed at the moment. I’m not looking for sympathy, or consolation; really, just a way to say what I’m thinking. I know these feelings will pass, but even as I know that, I know they’ll one day return. Is life happy with bouts of depression, or depressed with bouts of happiness?

Who knows; who cares. All I know is that tomorrow is another day; that isn’t a statement of hope, nor of despair – it just is. I’ll probably make it through it, just like I did today. How I’ll feel at the end of it … that’s really anyone’s guess.

Here’s to hoping it isn’t in despair.

Why must we foist our beliefs on others?

Let me preface this by acknowledging the hypocrisy of writing a post asking people to stop asking people to believe what they believe, but even my normally liberal, cat-friendly Facebook feed is slowly being infected by the belligerent views of the political right-wing, and I can’t stand it any longer.

I’m growing increasingly weary of hearing about the insanely fascist policies our president is signing into law, but almost more exhausted of the left’s incessant attempts to prove the right wrong at every turn. It’s like watching an exercise in futility, and it boils down to one thing: confirmation bias.

At this point, it should be clear to anyone—even living under a political rock, like myself—that Donald Trump is essentially bullet-proof. He has said and done things, both leading up to his presidency and beyond, that would have been career suicide for any other politician, and yet it serves only to bolster his popularity with his proponents. And all the while, those calling for his resignation or impeachment are being sidelined, belittled and silenced by the man himself.

… he is enabling people with deep-rooted prejudices to act out their misinformed biases and hatreds.

And under the umbrella of this dictatorial leadership, views and opinions that for decades were slowly being extinguished have been reignited, from misogyny and racism to xenophobia and sexual prejudices. It hardly seems like three years ago that gay marriage was celebrated in New Jersey for the first time in our history. The very notion of federally-funded scientific organizations are being systematically silenced is a hallmark of fascism, but the fact that there are people who believe it’s right is even more terrifying.

But by far the worst of this is not necessarily that our president is pushing right-wing and outright propagandist policies, but that he is enabling people with deep-rooted prejudices to act out their misinformed biases and hatreds. Our entire civilization, which ought to be founded on a base of acceptance and love, is now at risk.

Just today I saw a friend on Facebook like a post about a pro-life march in Washington D.C. The article claimed that our society is the most pro-life since Roe vs. Wade. The fact that this person liked the article didn’t necessarily surprise me, knowing the person for who she is, but the post comments were what got to me. People shouting for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, or that adoption is what not having an abortion looks like.

This is confirmation bias at its strongest. Because Planned Parenthood offers abortions—which is, clearly, something a lot of people think is wrong—it stands to reason that abortion is all they’re good for. As it turns out, roughly 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortions. That’s right: 97% of what they do has nothing to do with ending premature lives.

Even so, considering the issue of abortion, it becomes vital to recognize the social importance of sex in the first place. Many pro-life supporters would argue that abstention is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but not only is this impractical, it outright contradicts what both physical and mental health professionals have been learning for centuries. Clearly pregnancy is a potential consequence of sex, but in today’s society the social value of sex far outweighs the reproductive value. Education and contraception play their part, but so does the opportunity to correct a mistake.

Perhaps women shouldn’t be given this opportunity. After all, if you made a mistake, surely you should be made to live with it. And while I can understand that point of view to an extent, it’s also dictatorial law at its worst: the personal beliefs of a few are deciding the fate of millions. Consider that the cabinet in power making the decisions to fund or not fund Planned Parenthood comprises entirely white men.

Herein lies the root of the problem: it is intolerably unfair for men to choose the fate of women on an issue that only affects women. This is an arena in which men, by nature, have no experience. Men cannot carry children: what right do they have to decide that women should be forced to?

I’ll give you an analogy. I once had a vegan friend over to the house. Very nice person, if very passionate about her beliefs. We were having a nice time, until we decided to order pizzas. At this point, it came to light that she didn’t want anyone to order meat or cheese on their pizzas—not just her. In other words, she wanted her beliefs to dictate the dinner choice of everyone.

Now, this was only dinner—but the concept extends to religion, to sex, to immigration—to anything you can imagine. People across the world hold, and have always held, strong beliefs about certain issues. But for thousands of years, it’s been in human nature to be unable to leave it at that: our need for self-confirmation has meant that we need to either convince everyone of our beliefs … or eradicate those who won’t be convinced. And if you think this is a modern-day problem, exposited by radical Muslim extremists, consider that a thousand years ago, the Christians of the western world were exterminating Muslims in their own homes, because they didn’t follow their beliefs.

As much as I think Richard Dawkins is a egocentric, intolerant jerk, he once made a very good point: simply because, by sheer happenstance, you were born in the western world and raised as a Christian, you believe that your interpretation of god is the only one. If you were born in India, you would have been raised Hindu, and believed in a polytheistic ideology. By deduction, therefore, god can only be as real as how you were raised … which doesn’t exactly promote the ‘truth’ of deities of any kind.

Yet people continue to believe that their god is the only one; their beliefs about abortion are the right ones; their views on animal cruelty put them above others. And this would be just fine—if they didn’t try to foist those beliefs on everyone around them. This is, perhaps, my only strong belief: that no one has the right to force their beliefs on others. That isn’t the basis of a free and tolerant society, and I have no desire to live in a society that is neither of these things.

Hate me if you like; disagree with me all you want. I don’t have to listen to you, and you don’t have to listen to me. But the moment you think that you have the right to dictate what I think is right and wrong, you’ve crossed a line. That is my belief; that is what I hold dear.

I don’t ask that you believe the same—but nor do I have to listen to you if you don’t.