The chemicals and me

July 2, 2008 | 19 comments

Two days after I wrote this post I found myself sitting on my couch, crying.

A bunch of little things had gone wrong that week, and checking email in the morning to find that some plans I’d been counting on fell through left me feeling depressed and overwhelmed. Though the situation was certainly frustrating, my own reaction took me by surprise. It was out of character for me to feel so low about events that weren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

And then I remembered: the junk food detox!

This was the third day of giving up sugar and processed food and, as I’d anticipated, my body was re-learning how to function without tortilla chips and PBJ on white bread. My brain was operating in a different, “GIVE ME PRETZELS OR GIVE ME DEATH” sort of way. And it wasn’t pretty.

It reminded me of something that used to give me pause when I was an atheist.

For quite a few years in my late teens and early 20’s, I struggled with depression. It was clear to me that there was some kind of chemical imbalance going on in my brain, and it permeated every aspect of my life and thoughts. I would sometimes lament the fact that I just wasn’t “myself” anymore…yet I was never comfortable with that idea. In my worldview, the human person was nothing more than a collection of molecules; selfhood was nothing more than a unique set of chemical reactions firing in the brain. In that case, how could the current set of chemical reactions be less “me” than the chemical reactions that were going on a few years before?

I tried to explain this sense of a lost self by looking at the idea that the “self” is some sort of baseline set of chemical reactions, the most typical pattern of interaction among the neurons over the course of a person’s life. Yet, since I was dealing with depression at an early age and my brain had been rapidly growing and changing since childhood, it was hard to imagine that the “happy” interactions of the chemicals when I was 15 were somehow more authentically me than these “depressed” chemical interactions I’d been experiencing for 100% of my life as a matured adult.

Eventually things changed, and the depression lifted. I was grateful and relieved to finally be myself again. And yet, this “selfhood” that I had “recovered” clearly had a rather different set of chemical reactions and patterns of behavior than the version of me the last time I’d felt like myself, when I was a young teenager. How could this be? I knew that it defied logic to claim that the new set of reactions that I’d experienced for only a fraction of my adult life was more “me” than the ones I’d experienced the rest of my post-childhood years. Yet somewhere inside I knew it was true.

Years later, this was one of the things that led me to truly open my mind to possibility that there might be something more to life than the material world at hand. The undeniable truth of the existence of one objectively authentic version of myself, an encompassing essence that was intertwined with yet something different than the chemical reactions in my brain, piqued my interest in exploring the spiritual disciplines.

In other words, I started to think that I just might have a soul.

When I read about the concept of the soul, universally acknowledged in some way or another in almost every culture throughout history, I knew it was true. And, as I’ve said before, I was surprised and delighted to find that one result of being a Christian is that it puts you on the fast track to discovering the real you by acknowledging this soul and putting you in touch with the One who created it.

So, on those days that I find myself crying on the couch about things that don’t normally upset me, or in moments when, say, I’m trying to type a blog post on a Wednesday morning but insufficient coffee has left me feeling like what could only be described as “a grouchy snail on quaaludes, ” I feel again that peculiar sensation that the chemical reactions in my brain are oddly out of sync with the real me. And now I know why.


  1. blisschick

    Wonderful. Recently, I decided that depression was not “me” for much the same reason — that “me” is something so much larger and deeper than depression or brain chemicals. Now that I know this, it’s my responsibility to live it. And it gives me the tools to do just that — I can look at my “bad feelings” and know, first of all, that they don’t define me, and second, that it is my responsibility to figure them out and then show them the door, because, again, I am so much more. I think about Mary a lot when I’m feeling really self-pitying. She said “yes” to a life destined to be one of much pain — but she knew the joy would outweigh it. I am obligated, I believe, to say “yes” also — to all of it.

  2. elizabeth

    Hmmm, this one is a thinker for me. I’m going to have to re-read it a few times over the next few days. It’s like you’re talking directly to me here, but I can’t quite make out what you’re saying yet.

    And, funnily enough, that’s how I feel about all of Catholicism/Christianity since I reverted … this sense that the words I’m hearing (or reading) are so true that my gut (or my soul) recognizes them instantly, but my head takes longer to catch up. Did you experience this as you were converting? Does it go away eventually? Because it makes me feel rather stupid that things I know to be the truth aren’t easily assimilated into the whole of my being due to all the years of “pollution” of secular thinking.

  3. razzler

    What a wonderful, thought-provoking post. Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  4. Susan Thompson

    This is an interesting question, what is the true self? My husband, as a result of his neurological disorder, suffers from numerous psychiatric symptoms… depression, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, you name it. He is dependent on psychotropic medications. I believe the medications enable his true personality to come out and that his unmedicated self is not his true self.

  5. Creative Clayer

    It’s funny, I’ve always been a laid back, maybe even apathetic person, so the depression I’ve experienced is only ever evident to myself and the people closest to me. It’s always been a deep, inner sadness that rarely creeps out into affecting the outer “me” since I’m already somewhat indifferent to the action happening around me or even the actions happening to me. It’s not that I don’t care, just that I’m not gonna let it bother me, ya know? (of course things do bother me which is why I get depressed…somehow I’m just not that expressive about it.) Anyway, it’s that reason that depression has sort of become a part of “me”. There’s “Happy Me” and “Depressed Me” and sometimes there is something in between. Lately it’s been a lot of the in between, with a positive outlook. I’ve invited Jesus to be with All of “me” so it’s been difficult to get really depressed (for more than a short time) knowing He is with me. It’s better than Welbutrin! Ha!

  6. Flexo

    this “selfhood” that I had “recovered” clearly had a rather different set of chemical reactions and patterns of behavior than the version of me the last time I’d felt like myself, when I was a young teenager. How could this be?

    Hmm. Interesting and excellent point here. Although, it is not merely a different set of chemical reactions — are they not also a different set of cells, a different set of molecules and atoms making up, not only the brain, but the entire body? Is not our physical body of today an entirely different body from yesteryear?

    Granted, I’m no expert on physiology or biology or any of the bio-medical sciences, but is this not the case? The atomic particles that make up my brain are not the exact same particles that were present in my brain 40 years ago, are they? Atoms and molecules are rather dynamic things, constantly interacting with each other, so I would think that the purely physical “me” that walked the earth as a child is long, long gone, and the current “me” is something entirely different.

    And yet . . . I have the same thoughts, same memories, same desires, same anxieties. I am me and not-me at the same time.

    Man, this purely-materialistic view of the world makes my head hurt. And they say that this is the more rational, more reasonable explanation of life??

  7. Heather

    The good news is that that detox from junk food etc only lasts about 3 days to a week for most people.:) After that you go through a”high” where you feel SO AWESOME!!!! well, for about 2 to 3 weeks, then you kind of settle for middle ground but slightly better functioning before the detox.

    I realize that is not what you are specifically talking about but I thought I would mention it.

  8. Sue

    Great post and great comments 🙂 Elizabeth, when you said “this sense that the words I’m hearing (or reading) are so true that my gut (or my soul) recognizes them instantly, but my head takes longer to catch up” – I wonder if it’s just gonna be like that all of our lives because our bodies seem to “know” things deeper and more wiser than our minds do and I actually kinda like it like that 🙂

    I find the whole body knowledge thing fascinating, the fact that there are receptors in our guts that are the same as the ones in our brain, so the term “gut feeling” is actually more like “gut thinking” 🙂 Cool.

  9. Anonymous

    Who are *you* really? The *you* inside your body? Paul describes this same sensation in Romans 7 when he sees himself doing the very things he despises and failing to do the things he most desires. “I know that nothing good lives in me,” he says. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

    The older I get, the more I understand that, and not just because my body betrays me but because I have run out of excuses and people to blame for my own sins. I see that it was me all along.

    On our Independence Day tomorrow, it’s good to remember Paul’s conclusion. “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

    Because of Jesus, we can be set free even from the slavery to ourselves.

    don in Ann Arbor

  10. Ginkgo100

    Interesting that as an atheist, depression helped you become aware of your soul. As a cradle Catholic, it helped bring me closer to God. At first I “felt” further from God, but a counselor (who I don’t even think was Catholic, just very good at his job) mentioned how the Sacrament of the Sick is meant to treat body AND soul, because these diseases affect the spirit as well as the body.

    It was also comforting to me to know that my faith was not based on fuzzy happy feelings, but on reason and knowledge, so that I could be sure God was there even when I didn’t “feel” him.

    Later, at times the only thing that sustained me was knowing that Christ, at least, understood and shared my suffering and that I could share his.

  11. november

    I was also diagnosed as depressed in my teens, which continued through my early twenties. I wasn’t a Christian then and the analogy of a blackhole certainly applied to my outlook on life. I felt completely despondent, but something (now I know Someone) kept me going.

    Recently, a new friend, someone who does not know my history, suggested that I might be depressed, but that time, I had a difficult time agreeing with her assessment. Certainly, there had been some trials that I could not understand in my life which left me *situationally* depressed, but most definitely the utter hopelessness that defined my life during the last bout was completely gone.

    This still left me thinking about what exactly is depression. How much of it is actually me (or the sufferer) and how much of it is physiological? How much of it is spiritual?

    I’m still working through this one, but your post reminded me of this.

  12. lyrl

    I find it interesting that this observation is important to your worldview: this “selfhood”… had a rather different set of chemical reactions and patterns of behavior than the version of me… when I was a young teenager

    Both of parents believe in a soul and an afterlife. It was the observation quoted above that led me to believe there is no afterlife (my jury’s still out on the soul). It’s interesting the same observation (or very similar, I know my ellipses have somewhat changed the meaning of the sentence I quoted) led you in exactly the opposite direction:

    the existence of one objectively authentic version of myself

  13. Drusilla

    the words I’m hearing (or reading) are so true that my gut (or my soul) recognizes them instantly, but my head takes longer to catch up.

    We are so accustomed to believing that our heads lead the way. But that’s often not true where God is concerned. Our hearts (souls) teach our heads and that’s not surprising: the Holy Spirit truly dwells inside us.

    There is often a short circuit, a disconnect between our hearts and our heads. (And that short-circuit will manifest itself no matter how pious and advanced we believe ourselves to be.) But our hearts have something that might be described as a Holy Spirit shaped niche in which He dwells, through which God communicates with us. ‘Tis normal. ‘Tis good. ‘Tis evidence that our fall is only a fall and not damnation – we can be raised up. Though we turn away from God, He does not turn away from us, He knows how to reach us.

  14. Mina

    In a culture as clinically inclined as that of the United States, depression and other mental illnesses are often conveniently relegated as purely physiological problems with the corresponding chemical antidotes.

    During my college years, many of my girlfriends were in therapy for depression, eating disorders, etc., and were taking Prozac and other anti-depressants. Few of them seemed to be improving. This was during the “Prozac craze” of the late 90s.

    Many people, and certainly atheists, do not consider the spiritual causes of depression.

    I can only speak for myself, but I know that my depression ultimately stemmed from a spiritual emptiness that I longed to fill, a homelessness of the soul that I called “my hole”, and which I tried to fill with all sorts of material and superficial things that seemed to patch it up before slowly sinking back into the Nothingness.

    I’m sure that there are many causes of depression and I also acknowledge that many people have been helped by medication. But perhaps this recent upsurge in diagnoses of depression has more to do with a general spiritual emptiness which causes the corresponding neurological imbalances than the imbalances occurring for unknown or genetic reasons.

    Our society is more medicated than ever, and I believe there are many who don’t need to be.

    Atheists love to quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” But it seems that today opiates and other prescription drugs are the opiate of the masses, prescribed and taken by our fellow brothers and sisters who are seeking to fill a hole that can only be filled by God.

    Please don’t take this comment as a condemnation against all prescription medication. I have friends who are on medication for mental illnesses and those pills are probably saving their lives. But I do believe that on the whole we are overly medicating ourselves, and only the pharmaceutical industry is benefiting from this trend.

    And ginkgo100, I think depression is a way for atheists to experience the soul. I have known people who had never prayed before who prayed while in great pain. It doesn’t mean they stop being atheists, but it does mean that when all seems lost, we seek help wherever we can, even in the most unlikely places. I suppose it’s along the lines of that saying, “There are no atheists in fox holes.”

    To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God whispers in our pleasures and shouts in our pain. The Old Testament is, among other things, a story of the Israelites who are brought back to God through suffering after going astray in times of abundance and decadence. Perhaps the hard times are when He is trying to draw us to Him. It’s a comforting thought.

  15. Anonymous

    How much of our depression,(not sorrow or mourning) is spiritual oppression? Is it something to accept or something to fight? I don’t know and just ask.

  16. Ginkgo100

    Mina: Many general practitioners today mistakenly think that we now have a “cure” for depression in SSRIs and other, newer antidepressants, and that psychotherapy for depression is an outdated treatment (it’s not, not by a long shot). In fact, medical professionals who are not psychiatric specialists are some of the most prone to buy into myths of depression. Some time back, I wrote a whole list of myths about depression and anxiety disorders.

    Anonymous: Always fight depression. It’s not normal, and nobody should feel they have to just accept it.

  17. 'Becca

    I was a psych major during the rise of the SSRI craze and have given a lot of thought to the issue of depression (and anxiety) treatment ever since.

    The idea that one should “fight” depression rather than “accept” it strikes me as correct on one level and wrong on another. Yes, it is important to recognize that this state of mind is not “normal” and not your “real self”; therefore, seek light at the end of the tunnel instead of giving up. However, there is something to be gained from accepting that you feel what you feel and allowing yourself to feel it. Fighting your feelings often leads to self-criticism (“I shouldn’t be sad; I must be doing everything wrong.”) which only whips you into a worse state!

    It’s kind of like weather: Why is rain pouring from the sky? I can spend the day analyzing what caused which cloud and how they wouldn’t have piled up like that if not for that dang wind and the unfairness of it all…or I can say, “It’s raining. Sometimes that happens.” and get on with my life, making the necessary adjustments and maybe even finding comfort in them or appreciating the sensation of the rain just because it’s different and powerful.

    Why am I sad? Sometimes it happens. To everything there is a season. Accepting it, in that way, is not the same as being defeated by it. Fighting it, as if it were an enemy attacking me instead of a feeling in my own mind/heart, tends to turn the sadness into anger–which may be anger at somebody or something who “made” me sad, or anger at myself for being “weak” and letting this enemy in–and then I just have a different emotional problem to solve!

    Does that make any sense?

    I don’t mean to say that depression has no causes, just that “fighting depression” is not the best way to correct the causes or even to figure out what they are. Treating depression with SSRIs fools the brain into feeling less sadness without actually taking away the sadness or addressing its causes. It’s a weird and clumsy and, IMO, fundamentally unhealthy approach.

    I have a problem with headaches, a very snarled-up mind/body thing, and the most recent thing I’ve learned about it is: If I pray for God to take away the pain, THE PAIN GETS WORSE. What works much better is to pray for help finding my path. Then I become able to do things–though not always the things I had planned to do at that time–sometimes in a surprisingly adept way, even as I’m still in intense pain. I guess that boils down to seeking God’s will rather than demanding that God follow my will.

  18. Ray Ingles

    In studying dynamic systems, there's a concept called an 'attractor'. When you plot out the behavior of a system in "phase space" (sort of where each key variable of the system gets its own axis), a characteristic shape emerges, that the system 'naturally' follows, and even recovers after disturbances.

    (And don't think this implies some boring determinism – google up the "Lorenz Attractor". Seriously, look it up, or you won't grasp the concept I'm trying to relay. Also, think of the difference between climate and weather – climate is characteristic of a region, weather comes and goes.)

    If people were dynamic systems, then there could be unique 'attractors' – think of them as Platonic forms if it helps – that each person instantiates. A 'behavioral shape', a style that they embody, though not perfectly. (Think of the difference between an ideal frictionless pendulum in a vacuum and a pendulum in the real world.)

    One could recognize an imperfection in how one was embodying that attractor, that form – get a feeling that one "wasn't oneself" – without requiring an eternal soul.

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